Holding the Center Together: The Challenges of 2016 and Beyond
2015 did not end well for President Obama. 2016 did not begin well for Chancellor Merkel. But they will both face even more serious challenges in the new year. For Obama, it is his final year in the White House. For Merkel, it could help determine whether she will have several more years in the Chancellery—or could end her tenure in 2017. Both leaders will have to make tough decisions that will shape the path of their political futures and legacies.
Despite the differences in style, both Obama and Merkel have a similar challenge: the spreading anxiety in both Germany and the United States after the terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, the fear that more such dangers are lurking elsewhere, and the contagious perception that the government is not very capable of preventing future attacks.
For Americans, the terrorist attacks in San Bernardino were catalysts of fear that quickly became drawn into the heated debate of presidential campaigns. With the continuing violence perpetrated by ISIS in Iraq, Syria, Libya, and elsewhere, the atmosphere of an already highly-charged rhetoric immediately sent the security issue to the top of political debates. Accusations that President Obama is a weak leader paralleled bellicose rhetoric from his party’s rivals, who are promising more militaristic measures to eradicate the threats of what was summarily labeled as radical Islam. In any case, preventing another terrorist attack will be at the top of the list for Obama in 2016.
Then, at the beginning of the new year, Germany was shocked by a wave of vandalism and assaults on women in Cologne on New Year’s Eve, perpetrated by a large group of men, many of whom are refugees seeking asylum. The poorly-handled incident in Cologne added fuel to the fire of fears among many Germans that their country is not safe. The immediate focus on the over 1 million refugees in Germany became an explosive political platform for those blaming the chancellor for failing to prepare the country to deal with an influx of so many people in such a short period of time. She was also the target of criticism from many of her European neighbors who charged her with importing into Europe a problem that they perceive as overwhelming and endangering the continent. An additional factor was the high terrorist alert surrounding the train station in Munich on New Year’s Eve. Even though there was no attack, the potential for such events remains very much on the minds of many German citizens.
Merkel and Obama are both confronted with the need to restore trust and confidence in the government and its capabilities to respond to these challenges. Right now, both countries have started the year with a wave of skepticism toward government, the media, and corporate leadership, all of which have become targets of anger and frustration. Despite the different political systems in Germany and the U.S., there is a shared lack of trust and confidence in leadership on both sides of the Atlantic. Germans and Americans share an anxiety about the future, whether it is uncertainty in the markets, dangerous threats within and beyond their borders, and in some cases a sense of anger and frustration about what they can do about it.
Efforts to calm the discussion of these issues have been undermined by the combination of polarization among political parties, non-governmental groups, and the decline of participation in institutions, which in the past have given voice to those frustrated and disappointed. Americans’ lack of trust in their government’s capacity to solve problems is at its lowest level in decades. Washington has become a poster child for political paralysis. The candidacies of Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, among other figures in the presidential race, reflects this blowback among voters.
The situation in Europe, including Germany, is also reflecting these trends. While major problems ranging from immigration to terrorism call for increased cooperation and action at the European level, the response has been to look for national rather than European solutions, in part because government leaders are responding to growing nationalist sentiments at home. Surveys show that most Europeans think that Brussels doesn’t understand or listen to their problems. Germany will likely see the right-wing Alternative for Germany party enter several state parliaments in this year’s set of elections, a trend also happening elsewhere in Europe.
Amid all the challenges Obama and Merkel will face this year on the economic front or in the foreign policy arena, one of the most difficult will be the struggle to secure support for their policy initiatives and responses within a broad swath of the public that feels nervous. Obama’s final State of the Union speech on January 12 addressed this challenge directly:
“Democracy does require basic bonds of trust between its citizens. […] Democracy grinds to a halt without willingness to compromise, or when even basic facts are contested, or when we listen only to those who agree with us. Our public life withers when only the most extreme voices get all the attention. And most of all, democracy breaks down when the average person feels their voice doesn’t matter; that the system is rigged in favor of the rich or the powerful or some special interest. Too many Americans feel that way right now. It’s one of the few regrets of my presidency—that the rancor and suspicion between the parties has gotten worse instead of better.”
In her final address of the year last December, Merkel said something similar:
“In the new year, one thing will be integral: staying united. It will be integral to always listen to the reasoning of both sides, even if they value opportunities and woes differently than oneself. It will be integral to not let anything or anyone divide us. Not our generations. Not socially. Not into ethnic Germans and internationals. It will be integral to not follow those who, with fear or even hatred in their hearts, want to claim Germanness for themselves and only themselves, who seek to divide us. It will be integral to keep striving to be a nation, in which we are confident and free, social and open-minded—with a will to achieve, with the will to do our very best.”
2016 will test the ability of both Obama and Merkel to persuade their respective publics to follow these admonitions. Whoever follows Obama in the White House will have no less of a challenge—perhaps even more, given the polarized state of the country and the rhetoric running through the presidential and congressional campaigns. Angela Merkel will seek to calm the political waters in Germany and indeed in Europe—something she has been able to do before but is now more dramatically challenged by due to the refugee crisis, among other tough choices.
The burden of leadership never changes or diminishes. It constantly has to be renewed. As Yeats reminded us decades ago,
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity. 
The challenges of 2016 will be no less full of potential dangers or opportunities than past years.
But the goal remains constant—sustaining the balance between conviction and intensity.
 Yeats, William Butler. “Michael Robartes and the Dancer” Manuscript Materials. Thomas Parkinson and Anne Brannen, eds. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1994.